Episode 2: Face Value (Phil Collins, 1981)
Face Value, Phil Collins’ 1981 debut solo album, opens, improbably, with an epic, five minute and thirty-six second “In the Air Tonight.” You wait patiently, to the point where most pop songs would already have ended, for a “drop,” as it were. At three minutes in, you are briefly smacked over the head with “well I remember” to remind you to stick with him here. This thing is gonna pay off. And 40 seconds later, you hear it: that elegantly simple drum fill that left impressions—via number-two pencils cum drum sticks—on the car seats in front of countless kids growing up in the ’80s.
Once the peak is reached, it hangs there for a bit, and then, slowly, the knobs turn toward zero: nearly a full minute of fade-out.
Collins by this time had already toured the world many times over and made a name for himself as the drummer and later lead vocalist of Genesis. By 1979, he was talking publicly about making a stylistically-varied solo record that could contain long stretches of “mood.” But it wasn’t until he experienced a “personal tidal wave,” in the form of a divorce, that he took some time away from Genesis, holed up in his house, and wrote and recorded the tracks that would become the basis of Face Value.
After the coolly restrained, metronomic drum machine accompaniment of the opening song, a well-warranted organicism and punch is introduced, bolstered by Alphonso Johnson on bass, who makes the next two tracks: the gently off-kilter “This Must Be Love,” and the borrowed Genesis gem, “Behind the Lines,” which Collins speeds up 30% from the original and boosts into overdrive with the addition of the EWF Horns.
The pair of tunes that follows, acting more as story and epilogue than two separate songs, introduce the theatrical into Face Value. "The Roof is Leaking" fades in with crickets that remain in the background throughout the song as sonic scenery, supporting the tale of a poor and desperate family battling the cold winter and holding out for spring. The opening musical figure of "The Roof is Leaking," played by Eric Clapton's slide guitar, becomes the basis of "Droned,” the wordless, Indian-influenced tune that follows.
Track 6, “Hand in Hand,” brings the drum machine back into play, at first undergirding the children's choir, bass, drums, and horns, but gives way as the tune becomes an all-stops-pulled showcase for Collins' drum set and the EWF horns, foregrounding what might normally have been supportive rhythmic horn lines.
In a 1981 interview, Collins described “Hand in Hand” as “basically like ‘Who Dat Man?’,” the lively if ultimately problematic Marx Brothers song from their 1937 film, A Day at the Races, which sees Harpo, as Gabriel, skipping through a town and attracting—Pied Piper-like—a crowd of kids that builds behind him as he blows his penny whistle. It's less a musical comparison than a conceptual one: "Innocence and children,” says Collins, bluntly. (Incidentally, his boosterism for the Marx Brothers continued the following year in a much more overt fashion when he released his second album, entitled "Hello, I Must Be Going!")
The album’s most vulnerable and barebones statement is the brief "You Know What I Mean," with Collins on voice and piano accompanied beautifully by strings. The lyrics tell of a brokenhearted man imploring his ex-lover not to re-enter his life, to leave him alone so he can put the pieces of himself back together—a clear allusion to Collins’ divorce. One can hear this song, perhaps, as a prologue and companion to his mega-hit to come, "Against All Odds," which would be released three years later and would present an alternate version of dealing with love lost.
Overall the album covers a ton of ground—which is not totally unexpected for an initial solo release, where an artist wants to show off all sides of themselves—but it is masterfully sequenced, guiding the listener through multi-song arcs, often assisted by cross-fades to further the notion of continuity.
The final track, The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," is the album's only cover (not counting the Genesis tune, of course)—actually, if you want to get technical, the final 30 seconds of the album, as a treat for those who stick around for the ends of fades, has Collins singing the first stanza of Harold Arlen’s "Over the Rainbow" a cappella... But, to the Beatles:—It was not intended as an homage to John Lennon, who was shot dead in front of his apartment building just two months before Face Value's release. The track was recorded, mixed, and in the can over a year before that. So why a Beatles tune? “It’s basically a nudge in the ribs," Collins would explain, "saying, If you think this is nice, go back to the original, listen to that, because, you know, you missed this 20 years ago.”
Well, in case you guys missed Face Value 34 years ago, consider your ribs nudged.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.